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Sirena Irwin lives and breathes Lucy Ricardo

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Fans of “I Love Lucy,” the CBS sitcom that aired from 1951-1957, which is still seen world-wide in reruns, can experience a valentine to one of America’s most popular TV programs when “I Love Lucy® Live on Stage,” comes to the Murat Theatre at the Old National Centre, Feb. 11–16. Adapted for the stage, the tribute show is directed by Rick Sparks.

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Sirena Irwin plays Lucy and Bill Mendieta is Ricky Ricardo in roles they created in the original Los Angeles and Chicago productions. Kevin Remington is Fred and Joanna Daniels plays Ethel Mertz, the Ricardo’s endearing landlords and sidekicks.

The cast also includes Sarah Elizabeth Combs, Gregory Franklin, Peter Kevoian, Jayme Lake, Carlos Martin, Tyler Milliron, Denise Moses, Cindy Sciacca, Jeffrey Christopher Todd, Mark Christopher Tracy, Carolynne Warren and Tamara Zook.

Recently Examiner.com spoke by phone with Sirena Irwin about “I Love Lucy® Live on Stage,” and her beloved character Lucy. Irwin was in Fayetteville, Ark., the show’s most recent stop on its national tour prior to its run in Indianapolis.

When did the tour start and what are some of the other cities you’ve played?

The tour started in July. Before Fayetteville we were in Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto, Buffalo, Charlotte, Atlantic City and next week we get to spend Valentine’s Day with audiences in Indianapolis.

How did the show come about?

What I know of it is that the producers worked in collaboration with CBS to put on a 50th celebration for “I Love Lucy,” which in the beginning featured reconstructed sets that they toured around the country. They had an incredible response and millions of people went through the exhibits at state fairs, the Mall of America and so forth. Thinking “wouldn’t it be interesting to put actors on these sets,” they talked to CBS about getting the rights to do the episodes. After a while CBS agreed to give it a shot and then we started our collaboration. The first performance was in 2011. We did one performance in Vegas for some investors. They said yes and the producers decided to give it a try.

What is the show’s format?

It’s as if you are a studio audience member in the Desilu studios in the early 1950s. There is a host that takes the audience on a journey so you are going to see the filming of 2 episodes “The Benefit” and “Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined.” In between we have commercials featuring the Crystaltone Singers, who perform a medley of commercial jingles from the era.

What is your approach to the role of Lucy?

Our director Rick Sparks asked us to capture the essence of these characters. He was very clear with us that he did not want impersonations. He wanted us living and breathing in the text. Obviously the characters of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Fred and Ethel Mertz were created by four incredible actors and the characters wouldn’t exist without these people and what they brought to it. So it was kind of double-pronged journey, which was getting to know the script, letting them live within ourselves, but also letting them be informed by the extraordinary Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, William Frawley and Vivian Vance. Having the incredible opportunity of being able to look at their work, I felt for myself that it was really important to capture some of the things that Lucille Ball did.

Are you referring to Lucy’s mannerisms?

Yes. Like her terrible singing and her cries. I did study Lucille Ball’s characterization of Lucy but I didn’t want mine to come off as mimicry. It really has to be innately in all of us and we have to live and breathe in these roles with this comedy which is all about timing. For us, replicating their timing is the eternal quest. These four people and also the guest stars that joined them worked so unbelievably well together. Each individually understood timing, which was a part of what made this show incredibly successful.

How have you been received by hardcore Lucy fans?

I feel that it has been a very warm reception. It was really great to being in L.A. where there are still people that are alive and well that worked with them [the original cast]. They knew them intimately and came to me after seeing the show, with open arms. They were very loving, very embracing. It meant the world to me to have their support.

Are you aware that Madelyn Pugh, one of the writers of “I Love Lucy,” is from Indy?

Yes. Unfortunately, she passed away just months before we opened in Los Angeles. It was just so upsetting to me that she couldn’t be there. I would have loved to have met her. Her son and daughter-in-law came to see the show and were very complimentary and kind and gracious. It was amazing what she did in that era. I read that she had a director chair on the set that said “girl writer”. She was just an incredibly talented woman and amazing force and a great balance to Jess Oppenheimer and Bob Carroll. What I would have given to be in those writer’s room to see how they worked. Did you know that Fred and Ethel Mertz are named after Madelyn’s neighbors there in Indianapolis?

Is there a strong bond amongst you and your cast members?

Oh, yes. There certainly is. Bill [Mendieta] who plays Ricky, and I, have been doing this from the beginning. Coincidently, we went to college together. We met in the theatre department and worked together a little bit. We hadn’t seen each other much except in plays around Los Angeles and we’d stop by and say hello. Then we both happened to be cast in these parts. And I think that just having that knowledge and understanding from the beginning gives us chemistry, connection and a deep respect for one another and that has been very helpful. Our Ethel [Joanna Daniels] came to us from Chicago and is just an incredibly wonderful, loving soul. It has been such a great experience to get to be her best friend on stage. And our Fred Mertz [Kevin Remington] is a new acquisition with this tour and he is just phenomenal in the part.

Have Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. seen the show?

No. Neither of them has made it out yet. We are really hoping they do at some point but they have busy schedules and lives. Bill and I actually went to the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in Jamestown in early August on her birthday. There were all kinds of people connected with them [Lucie and Desi Jr.]. They all said “we have reached out to them and told them that they have to come to see this show because it is such a love letter to their parents, and to the show, and to the birth of television.”

Tickets for “I Love Lucy® Live on Stage,” are available at the Old National Centre Box Office, all Ticketmaster outlets, Ticketmaster.com, OldNationalCentre.com and by phone at 800-745-3000.

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